The past is ever present for the French Jewish family at the heart of Joshua Harmon’s new play at Manhattan Theatre Club. Prayer for the French Republic blends the stories of five generations of the Salomons in a powerful and poignant, if uneven, reflection on anti-Semitism across the ages, and the meaning of family, home, and belonging.
There’s no mistaking how deeply rooted the Salomon family is in Paris. At the opening of the play, we are treated to a potted family history by Marcelle—the present-day matriarch—as she tries to explain to her young American cousin Molly, visiting on a study abroad year in 2016, how they are related. Behind them, their forebears potter about the same apartment 70-some years earlier, in 1944 when Paris was still occupied by the Nazis. The action moves back and forth between the eras across the sprawling Paris apartment of Takashi Seta’s ingenious set, flooded by sunlight through the “French” windows. The family has been in France for centuries and has owned a piano business in Paris since the 1800s. A grand piano, bearing the family name, dominates the living room, and comes to serve as a reminder of why their ties to the city are so difficult to cut. But very soon we learn that recent incidents are making the family question whether Paris is now a safe place for Jews, when far-right politician Marine Le Pen seems a possible winner in the presidential race.
The debate comes to a head after Daniel—the present-day son and the fifth generation on stage—is attacked in the street. Marcelle—played as a hectoring harridan by Betsy Aidem—flies immediately to the worst-case scenario and begs her son to cover his kippah when he goes out to reduce the likelihood of violence. The family members all represent varying degrees of Jewish identity and faith. Daniel, a sweet and pliable millennial in the hands of Yair Ben-Dor, has recently embraced his religion with a new fervor. This is the cause of much debate with his uncle, Patrick—Richard Topol in a role that also serves awkwardly as an intermittent narrator. Marcelle and Patrick, whose mother was Catholic, were brought up with no religion. Patrick comments that after the war, many French Jewish families distanced themselves from religion or dropped it altogether – perhaps in reaction to their wartime experiences. But Marcelle converted to Judaism when she married Charles (Jeff Seymour), a Sephardic Jewish émigré from Algeria. Their daughter, Elodie, is too immersed in her depression to care about her religion, but passionately debates the reality of being Jewish now. What appears to bind them all as a family, however, is their relentless appetite for heated debate not to say slanging matches. In particular, Marcelle never lets up, leaving the audience yearning for a change of tone or a moment of calm.
The stakes are undeniably high. Should the threat of violence be reason enough to leave everything behind and move to Israel? they ask, acknowledging that Israel is not necessarily a haven of peace. Meanwhile, their forebears live through the Holocaust and German occupation of France. Nancy Robinette and Kenneth Tigar beautifully portray the grandparents’ determined effort to maintain hope in the face of facts. They have somehow managed to stay unscathed in Paris. Their son and grandson eventually return, the only survivors of those carted off to the concentration camps, unable to talk about what happened. Their story in all its suppressed horror is a stark contrast to the comfortable life of the present day Salomons. Their modern family is genuinely fearful but also entitled. Marcelle and Charles are both successful doctors, their children pampered twenty-somethings given to insular self-indulgence. They are, however, happy to pounce on their cousin, played with a spunky naivete by Molly Ranson, when she raises some drawbacks of living in Israel. In one particularly entertaining scene, Elodie, a fidgety, strident Francis Benhamou, lectures Molly at length without drawing a breath about, among other things, being “ahistorical” and why everything American Jews know about being Jewish is wrong.
The discussion comes to a head when we finally meet a member of the previous generation in the present: Pierre, Marcelle and Patrick’s father. Peyton Lusk is the young Pierre in the past while Pierre Epstein plays the present-day version with aplomb. He is discussed in earlier scenes by his children, but it is almost as if he’s a piece of furniture or one of the pianos that few people buy anymore. The character’s magnanimity is at odds with his firmly selfish offspring but no matter. His arrival underlines the depth of the fear the family feels in the face of ongoing anti-Semitism.
With a run time of three hours, there are moments during Prayers for the French Republic when one feels it has more than made its point. But whether Jewish or not, there is much to admire about the play and much to ponder about the state of the world where tolerance and acceptance for all are still distant dreams.